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A Degree of Uncertainty. November 2019.

Why the Frankfurt Book Fair is a sign of the times

The publishing world evolves faster than the speed of someone flicking quickly through a flimsy paperback. You can almost hear the urgent snap of pages.


As the world's largest and most prestigious book fair, The Frankfurt Book Fair 2019 - or the Frankfurter Buchmesse - prepares to open its doors this week, it is timely to look at just how much the industry has changed, and continues to change.


In September 2019, Publisher’s Weekly claimed that: “a sense of confidence and stability” has returned to the event, with Juergen Boos, president and CEO of the Frankfurt Book Fair telling PW that he believes, “…the book fair is getting more like it used to be, in the late ’80s and the ’90s, when we had the big names and literary events. That feeling is coming back, and it’s bringing more of the purpose behind the books back to Frankfurt.”


Those big names this year include Jo Nesbø, Margaret Atwood and Ken Follett, but the fair will also welcome a number of writers who are self-published, or who have plans to self-publish. The event’s ‘Frankfurt Authors’ area encourages bloggers, authors and self-published authors to meet like-minds, talk to readers, and locate the necessary skills to bring their publications to life.

It is a sign of the times.


Self-published books spewed out by so-called ‘vanity’ presses were historically often viewed as the poor relation of traditional publishing, but all that has changed. Several factors have driven this change: digital technology presents a huge enabling tool, and social media in particular can pack quite a punch when it comes to marketing. It gives aspiring authors autonomy.


In addition, authors’ earnings have dive bombed in recent years, while large publishers have seen their sales soar.


This imbalance puts opportunities for future talented authors in jeopardy — and self-publishing might just be a saviour. It gives authors control of their books, as well as the potential to earn a much greater sum, ring fenced from hungry middlemen.

I use the word ‘potential’ advisedly — without the marketing muscle of a publishing company it takes a lot of skill, determination and work to find and reach your audience with your offering. That said, it has never been easier to school yourself in such an art, and to make it happen.


For many writers, self-publishing allows them to make a decent living, something increasingly few can do within the confines of the traditional publishing model.

Indeed, research from The Royal Society of Literature in June 2019 revealed that the vast majority of writers fail to earn the income that Virginia Woolf argued a writer needs — £500 a year, equivalent to just over £30,000 in 2019. The majority of writer respondents to the organisation’s survey earned less than £10,000 from their writing in 2018.


Self-publishing is moving up the agenda, and has a strong presence at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair

Just look at Beatrix Potter, who failed to woo publishers with The Tale of Peter Rabbit and instead decided to publish 250 copies in black and white. That was in 1901. The ‘bunny story’ was picked up by a publisher the following year. It has never been out of print.


Rather more recently (and so far at the other end of the spectrum it is virtually on a different scale entirely), Fifty Shades of Grey famously began as self-published fan fiction of Twilight, under the title Master of the Universe. The Fifty Shades of Grey series went on to decimate sales records for contemporary adult publishing, topping 150 million copies sold worldwide. Not to mention the films…

(EL James’ 2019 novel, The Mister, is even part set in Cornwall. Clearly she has an eye for on-trend destinations…)


And I haven’t even mentioned The Martian by Andy Weir, an American computer programmer by trade. The book began life as a series of self-published chapters on his blog, before he made it available on Amazon Kindle. It then climbed to the top of Amazon’s best seller lists for sci-fi and was eventually adapted into a 2015 film starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott.


Self-publishing is an increasingly viable option for authors and aspiring authors to share the fruits of their labour. Just look at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2019 programme — there are a wealth of self-publishing events going on, from direct marketing and social media marketing to designing the perfect book cover, not to mention several author signings by successful self-published authors.

Readers, is this the future?


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